There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get some deep work done but being distracted by the necessities of daily life in the modern world.
Have you ever had that experience? Where you need to complete a report, brush up on a patient’s problem by going to the literature, or write an academic paper submission, but you just can’t get uninterrupted time to think?
My bet is that every doctor will know this feeling. It could be interminable documentation or administration requirements such as practice meetings. These distractions can keep us from our core business. Don’t even start on the ever-present disturbances coming from ubiquitous mobile devices, internet access and the worldwide web!
What is the solution, then? What can a physician do to ensure they spend their time on their highest possible contribution? One answer might be to try Deep Work.
So, what is Deep Work? And who is Cal Newport?
Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).((http://calnewport.com/about/]
In addition to his work on the theory of distributed algorithms, he is the bestselling author of several books.
His early books focused on being the best student possible, both at the high school and university level. He has also published another fantastic book on workplace performance: So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Grand Central, 2012).
In his latest book Deep Work (Grand Central, 2016), Newport sets out to demonstrate that Deep Work is both rare and valuable. Honing the ability to perform Deep Work, therefore, will lead to career success.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Newport starts by relating the story of Carl Gustav Jung.
As Newport tells the story, Jung built a tower in Bollingen, far from his home and office in Zurich. He would participate fully in the professional and social obligations of being a prominent psychiatrist when in Zurich. He also would frequently retreat to his Bollingen Tower to ensure time for meditation, reading and writing. Newport suggests that Jung needed to make space (physical, mental and social) to ensure he could make his best contribution to the field of academic psychiatry.
Newport defines several types of work before stating his hypothesis:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
You can also have a pdf of this post for later reading.
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You can also have a pdf of this post for later reading. Go to the full version of this page to download for free.
The book is divided into two sections. The first, ‘The Idea’, contains three chapters devoted to explaining the basis for his hypothesis. The second, ‘The Rules’ contains four chapters that state Newport’s recommendations for how to achieve this Deep Work and to practice the skill of executing it.
A helpful mind map that I created can be explored below. Be sure to click on each section to see how Newport structures his argument and the examples he uses to build on each point.
Deep Work: The Idea
Deep Work Is Valuable
In his first chapter, Deep Work Is Valuable, Newport describes the employment landscape as he sees it. With more work becoming automatable, people with those skills will lose out in the job market. Those with the skills to work with intelligent machines will have a disproportionate opportunity to thrive.
There are two other groups for whom the new workplace will lead to opportunities: the superstars and the owners.
The superstars are the best of the best in their fields. They can work remotely from anywhere in the world as guns for hire to replace local workers with lesser skills.
Finally, the owners are those who can invest in or purchase new technology. This applies to venture capitalists and billionaires, so probably not you or I!
What if Newport is correct that the future belongs to the technologically capable, the superstars and the owners? How can an average Joe find a place to exist or even thrive?
He identifies two core skills that can allow us to thrive:
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
This leads Newport to his hypothesis. Those capable of performing Deep Work will be most likely to both master hard things and produce at the elite level required.
Deep Work Is Rare
The second plank of Newport’s argument is that Deep Work is rare in the modern workplace. Thus, the capacity to perform Deep Work can differentiate you from your peers.
He notes that studies on the effects of email on business have demonstrated a significant impact on worker efficiency.
To summarize, big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).
The Principle of Least Resistance
In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
This explains why so many of us will spend so much of our time in email rather than doing work of meaning and substance. And by doing so, contributing to the inefficiency of others by keeping them in their inbox as well.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity
In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Sending lots of emails at all hours of the day, for example, might look like you are working but what is the measurable outcome of that ‘work’? And it’s cost?
Finally, Newport discusses the ‘Cult of the Internet’. His thesis is that people, businesses and our broader society assume that if something is ‘connected’ or ‘internet-enabled’ it will make things better or more efficient. He suggests that this might be the case despite an absence of evidence to support that idea.
This leads to his conclusion that what is bad for business might be good for you:
Among them are the realities that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things.
The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.
Deep Work Is Meaningful
Again, Newport has a three-pronged argument to support his thesis in this chapter
A Neurological Argument for Depth
Newport describes the work of author Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher related her diagnosis of cancer, and the revelations she experienced about the power of attention. As Gallagher summarises:
Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on
In Newport’s words:
Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors
To increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life
A Psychological Argument for Depth
Newport relies on the work of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi popularised the description of the mental state ‘flow’. In his research, he demonstrated that the more flow experiences in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction was.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s words:
The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile
Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it
Finally, he concludes that deep work is an activity suited to generating a flow state, and that flow generates happiness. Thus:
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction
A Philosophical Argument for Depth
In this section, Newport refers to the work of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly who published the book ‘All Things Shining’. They believe that sacredness and meaning are further away now than in historical times, and that:
Craftsmanship… provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness
Newport notes that Dreyfus and Kelly conclude that the task of a craftsman:
Is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there
He claims that any pursuit that supports high levels of skill can generate a sense of sacredness.
A wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work
Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I have a list of 20+ podcast episodes.
Download for free.
Listen to Cal Newport discuss Deep Work – I have a list of 20+ podcast episodes. Go to the full version of this page to download for free.
Deep Work: The Rules
In the second half of his book, Newport moves on to the tactics he suggests we employ if we want to achieve deep work. Further, he explains the professional and personal benefits that go along with deep work. He offers four rules to optimise our chance of achieving professional breakthroughs and develop our most satisfying lives.
Rule #1 Work Deeply
Newport references the work of Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister, as well as the book ‘Willpower’ by Baumeister. Hofmann and Baumeister studied workers throughout an average day and found that they reported fighting their personal desires for much of their time.
Their desires included the usual eating, sleeping and sex, but also:
Taking a break from [hard] work … checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television
Hofmann and Baumeister measured how successful these workers were at resisting their temptations. They were only able to resist the internet and television “around half the time”.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it
Newport thus concludes:
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration
Scheduling Deep Work
Newport suggests four potential approaches to scheduling Deep Work:
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
The monastic approach is to eliminate or radically minimise shallow obligations. It requires clarity of purpose and clearly defined professional goals. It is very difficult to maintain this approach and applies to only a limited pool of workers.
The bimodal approach is exemplified by Jung and his Bollingen Tower. Jung worked in Zurich and had a heady mix of professional, social and personal obligations. Intermittently, he would shut himself away to complete thinking and writing he found difficult to perform while in Zurich. Newport suggests that at least a full day is required to succeed with this strategy.
The rhythmic approach requires scheduling deep work sessions habitually. Create a rhythm for this work that removes the need to decide when you’ll do it.
Finally, the journalistic approach requires you to be able to switch from shallow to deep work quickly. You can then take advantage of any opportunity to go deep when it presents. This is a difficult skill to develop.
Newport recommends that we create rituals around our deep work sessions. It doesn’t matter which philosophy we adopt for their implementation.
These rituals might include:
- Where you’ll work and for how long
- How you’ll work once you start to work
- How you’ll support your work
Execute Like a Business
The penultimate part of Rule 1 is to employ clear strategies to enhance your execution. Here, Newport relies on the wonderful work of Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling in their extraordinary business execution manual ‘The 4 Disciplines of Execution’ (4DX).
The 4 Disciplines:
- Focus on the Wildly Important
- Act on the Lead Measures
- Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
- Create a Cadence of Accountability
I do not intend to expand on 4DX. I would recommend it to anyone looking to improve their personal productivity.
Finally, Newport suggests three reasons that downtime is required to allow great work to occur.
- Downtime Aids Insights
- Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
- The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
Rule #2 Embrace Boredom
Newport’s recommendation in this chapter is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that requires training. Boredom, he suggests, is rare nowadays. Without the ability to resist distraction we are unlikely to be able to maintain focus.
Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times
He also recommends ‘productive meditation’ which for him involved working through a really hard problem or scientific proof while walking. It doesn’t need to be walking, but any physical occupation that doesn’t require a lot of mental effort could be repurposed for deep consideration of a problem.
He suggests two strategies that might help you to optimise these sessions:
- Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping
- Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking
Rule #3 Quit Social Media
Newport seems to have a thing about social media. When he marshals his arguments, however, it is hard to dispute his hypothesis.
I include a video here of Newport addressing a TEDx conference on this rule:
He goes on to define different approaches to how we decide upon and utilise tools (including social media tools):
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits
The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.
The next step in this strategy is to consider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity.
Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
Rule #4 Drain the Shallows
The final rule describes Newport’s suggested strategies to reduce the burden of shallow work to allow deep work to thrive. He suggests these steps:
- Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
- Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
- Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
- Finish Your Work by Five Thirty (fixed-schedule productivity)
- Become Hard to Reach
- Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work
- Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
- Don’t Respond
The goal of scheduling your day is to use intention to choose what you do, rather than doing things only by habit or choosing the path of least resistance.
Quantifying the depth and measuring it allows you to realise how much time you have each day and how you might make better choices around how you spend it.
The shallow work ‘budget’ suggestion is a way of convincing your boss to release you from some professional obligations in recognition that if you’re already spending some of your shallow work time on one task then you shouldn’t add another.
By setting a fixed schedule, Newport suggests you will make better decisions about the time you have. It will mean you are much more ruthless about what shallow obligations you accept from others.
Finally, by becoming hard to reach you will inevitably reduce the requests for your time from others.
Bestselling author and professor Cal Newport has an enviable publication record in his field. I am a busy physician with little research or publication history, a young family and lots of different responsibilities. So how can I apply Newport’s recommendations??
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Unlike a lot of the personal development literature which isn’t easily applicable to a doctor, Deep Work translates to our context quite effectively. This isn’t a book about entrepreneurs or working in Fortune 500 companies. Newport is a scientist and academic, and his struggles to achieve personal efficiency and effectiveness are highly relatable to the medical field. All of us in the health professions should value being able to quickly master complicated information and produce a new insight that helps in our research or with our patients.
There are elements of Newport’s story that are directly correlatable to those of us in any kind of academic medical position. Although this won’t apply to someone working hard on the front lines who doesn’t engage in research and publication, for those that do his principles will be helpful indeed.
If you are someone who is conducting research activity you will likely recognise a lot of yourself in Newport. His research and publication track record should encourage you to think about how to apply his recommendations.
For those who aren’t publishing in the academic/medical literature, there is still a lot to gain from applying the rules from Deep Work. Even if it is only with the goal of being more efficient and getting home on time more often to see your family, I suspect Newport’s Rules will help you a lot.
For anyone in a professional role, whether in medicine, academia, business or other, Rule #4 Drain the Shallows can only help.
Newport provides a lot of actionable advice in his four rules, but I have to admit that I find some of it hard to see working in my context. Negotiating a ‘Shallow Work budget’ with my boss is likely to be quite difficult. I suspect success here might relate more to the relationship one has with their boss and the management style they prefer.
If your boss spends a lot of time in ‘Busyness’ it might be hard to disengage from that without appearing to devalue the practice. Similarly, if your manager is ‘hands-on’ then asking for a period in which you switch on your email autoresponder and mute your phone to engage in a ‘Bimodal’ Deep Work period will probably lead to significant questions being asked.
If you are a sole practitioner, you might have the capacity to control your working time and environment to the extent Newport recommends.
For myself, I have chosen to start with small steps. My end goal is to demarcate certain time during each week for deep work, but I recognise the limitations placed on me by my working circumstances. I hope that with the passage of time, small changes will become big ones: almost a kaizen approach to the implementation of Newport’s strategies.
I look forward to measuring my progress while working without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
Practising deep work requires changing your mind and habits to support this skill. As with any change you make to your life, the critical step that most people forget is to measure the effects. If you are planning to implement some of these strategies, be careful to consider how you might best measure the outcomes.
What metric can you use? Can you create a scoreboard? Is the outcome something that depends only on the changes you’ve made, or are you trying to lead a cultural adaptation? In the final analysis, is the change worth the cost?
Newport does provide some practical advice that will help you to define these measurement questions in advance. He discusses 4DX extensively, and I repeat my recommendation of this marvellous book, concept and strategy. You could also use the 12 Week Year model, which shares similar concepts about tracking and measuring execution with 4DX.
A thought experiment
He also suggests the ‘Law of the Vital Few’ thought experiment for evaluating the use of social media networking tools. You might adapt that activity to your implementation of the Deep Work rules.
- Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life
- List for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal
- Consider the application of each of Newport’s rules and strategies
- Go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the rule/strategy has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact
- Keep using this rule only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts
I’m not sure that Newport would agree with my re-purposing his Law of the Vital Few in this way. I have found it helpful, however, when considering the value of various strategies and their cost. I suspect that you would get far closer to the ideal of Deep Work by implementing all of the strategies from Newport’s rules.
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work has had a profound impact on how I consider the value of my contributions in my workplaces. I have adapted some of my thinking to look through the Deep Work lens, and I have been aggressively cutting back on shallow obligations as a result. This brings me closer to living in alignment with my mission.
Although I am by no means an expert, I see the potential in decluttering. I already feel less encumbered and I look forward to the time when the results of my labours become clear. I do recognise an improvement in my ability to focus. In the meantime, I can heartily recommend reading Deep Work at least once.
Even if you think the strategies and rules Newport suggests don’t apply to your situation, the depth of his arguments in the first half of the book should provide insight into your professional situation.
Have you read Deep Work? Will you? Have you found any success in implementing Deep Work practices in your life and work? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image by Loostee © Panoramio
Image of Cal Newport and cover for Deep Work via calnewport.com